Promises, promises … Now even one of these can jail you

Fijian Elections Office polling officers and agents assist voters at the Vuci Methodist School polling station in Nausori during the 2018 General Election. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

I’m old enough to remember when politics was fun. In my short career as a Fiji Times reporter I was in the thick of the 1982 General Election.

It was a more innocent time in some ways – after all, no one was looking over their shoulder and wondering if there would be a coup later on.

And of course I took an interest in the elections that followed.

Back then, small and sometimes eccentric political parties would pop up out of nowhere.

They had no hope of winning anything, but they always added colour.

Back then, you didn’t have to go through the exhausting and expensive process of collecting 5000 signatures across Fiji’s four divisions, then waiting for some bureaucrat to nitpick his way through the names to see if they were all on the electoral roll and not on some other party’s list.

Under the law you are not allowed even to be a member of two political parties (which must spoil the fun for some of us).

Back then, you could get 10 people together, filed some rudimentary paperwork, pick a symbol – there were tractors, forks, spades, lalis, you name it – and just get going.

Campaigning continued up to the last minute – no 48-hour “blackout” before polling day.

Voters going to a polling station encountered a festive atmosphere.

Political parties built sheds – they had to be ‘fifty feet’ away from the polling station, that seemed to be the only rule.

The sheds were filled with party supporters mixing yaqona, cooking food and making goodnatured fun of their opponents in the neighbouring shed.

There was routine grumbling about how this voter or that would come to your shed, drink your grog, eat your palau – and then vote for the other side.

Party volunteers tied party banners to their cars to carry loyal supporters (well they hoped so) to the polling station.

People were involved.

They participated, even if it was for only one day.

They campaigned, they talked politics.

The country buzzed.

“True democracy” has no fun

Nowadays, in our “true democracy”, politics is a much drier business.

Political parties are registered, regulated and supervised to within an inch of their lives.

Woe betide any media company speculating that someone might be forming a political party.

Because the law says you must call it a “proposed political party”.

If you don’t you can be prosecuted and fined and your editor sent to jail.

The two-day election blackout means no more campaigning around polling stations.

Apparently we are all so stupid and easily influenced that we can only vote if our minds have been purified by 48 hours of electoral silence.

Of course, in the 2018 election this did not stop a fake news site on Facebook popping up on election day and suggesting that SODELPA would abolish Diwali and National Federation Party would legalise gay marriage.

Curiously, that fake news site spread no untruths about the FijiFirst party.

I guess its sponsors will remain a mystery.

Anyway, our “true democracy” these days seems to be a sterile process supervised by a bunch of finger-wagging officials determined to take all the fun out of it.

And now, under another change to the Electoral Act, a politician can’t even make a promise without the risk of jail time.

This law was passed in July.

As usual, it was legislation by ambush.

MPs got the Bill two days before it was voted through under the usual Standing Order 51 urgency.

A bunch of very technical sounding (therefore boring) changes to the Financial Management Act were enacted.

But buried in the Bill was a more interesting change.

The new law

The Electoral Act was also amended by adding a new election campaign rule.

What did it say?

In summary this is what the new law says: If you are a political party, or an election candidate, or “any other person representing, or acting under the direction of, the political party or candidate”, and you make a “financial commitment”, you must “immediately provide a written explanation” of that commitment.

A “financial commitment” is basically any election promise which, if carried out, would have “financial implications”.

Your “written explanation” must set out:

• how revenue for the financial commitment is to be raised;

• how expenditure for the financial commitment is to be made;

• how expenditure is to be allocated to different sectors and budget sector agencies; and,

• if expenditure exceeds revenue, how the deficit is to be financed.

If you breach this law – that is if you make this promise and don’t supply your “written explanation” – guess what?

Yes, you guessed it.

You “commit an offence and shall be liable upon conviction to a fine of $50,000 or imprisonment for a term of up to 10 years or to both”.

So, imagine the situation where the assistant treasurer of the local branch of NFP is having a bowl of grog with some friends at home in Rakiraki.

One of them says “tell your party they have to fix the bus shelter near the school that got damaged during Cyclone Winston”.

“Set brother, we will do that” says the official, giving him the thumbs-up.

As they settle for another round, they fail to see closet FijiFirst party supporter in the corner reaching for his mobile phone.

Half an hour later a police officer appears at the door.

“I suspect you are a person representing or acting under the direction of a political party or candidate,” the corporal tells the stunned grog swiper.

“You have failed to provide a written explanation of how you will raise revenue to fix the bus shelter, how the expenditure is to be made, to which budget sector agency it is to be allocated and how the resulting deficit is to be financed.

“Please come with me to the police station where we will of course lock you up for 48 hours before you appear in court.”

Paranoid stupidity

Seriously.

What kind of paranoid stupidity drives the people who make our laws?

I spend all day with my nose buried in laws and legal paperwork.

I barely know what a “budget sector agency” is.

Do you?

So how is a candidate for election – an ordinary human being, like the rest of us – supposed to “provide a written explanation” of which budget sector agency will raise the money to pay to fill a pothole?

Interestingly the law doesn’t actually say who the “written explanation” must be given to.

Does it have to be in a pamphlet?

Or is the Supervisor of Elections going to be sitting at his desk waiting for a letter to come in?

And equally interestingly, the new law doesn’t seem to require that the explanation be accurate.

So I suppose a politician could say “I think this feeder road repair will cost $10 and we will fund it by reducing the morning tea budget at the Ministry of Forests.”

Crushing debate

But here is the serious point.

Of course politicians are going to make promises to get your votes.

And of course they are going to overpromise.

The current government, when campaigning for office, is no exception.

And as mature and sensible voters, we are going to think about those promises, how realistic they are and how credible those parties and candidates are.

And vote accordingly.

The new law means that it is dangerous for opposition politicians to tell you what they intend to do for you if they win government.

They don’t know how this vague law will be applied (except that they will most likely be its targets).

So all the new law does is stop the free flow of ideas and information that are vital to politics and the electoral process.

Politics is supposed to be participatory.

It is supposed to be a contest of ideas, hotly debated, passionately pursued by people interested in and concerned for the future direction of their country.

And the electoral rules are supposed to be about making this happen.

They are supposed to be about us, the people, and what we want – not the demands of humourless bureaucrats with
legal boxes to tick.

But everything about our “true democracy” today seems to be different – joyless, pointlessly regulated and threatening.

And sure as hell, not fun.

• RICHARD NAIDU is a Suva lawyer (and a chronic overpromiser). The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of The Fiji Times.

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